BEIRUT: The notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic in Haret Hreik has suddenly vanished. So have the bustling hallmarks of Beirut’s southern suburbs, the heavily populated district on the edge of the Lebanese capital where Hezbollah has a strong power base.
The wave of car bombings and suicide attacks that targeted Hezbollah’s stronghold in this area recently has apparently left its mark on the southern suburb’s residents and businesses, resulting in a bitter choice for many: Either relocate or stand fast in the face of threats to their lives posed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that have vowed to strike deep in Hezbollah-controlled areas in retaliation for the party’s military intervention in Syria.
“We are in a state of war against the enemies of humanity. Takfiri groups view any Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites or Druze who do not share their radical ideology as their enemies,” said Hadi Nasser, 40, who owns a clothing store on Al-Arid Street in Haret Hreik, where a suspected suicide bombing killed four people and wounded 46 others last week.
“We support the resistance [Hezbollah]. These attacks will not weaken us. Rather, they will enhance our conviction that Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria was the right decision. The bombings that occurred in the southern suburbs are just a drop in a sea of what would have happened had Hezbollah not intervened in Syria,” Nasser added, standing outside his store, whose glass broke and gate was blown off in the explosion.
He said security fears and the deteriorating economic situation have brought business activity on Al-Arid Street to a complete standstill.
Tuesday marked one week since the suspected suicide bombing struck the once-bustling Al-Arid Street, in the latest attack claimed by an Al-Qaeda-linked group.
The Jan. 21 explosion occurred before noon just meters from the site of an explosion earlier this month in the suburb that was claimed by the Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Last week’s attack was claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of Syria’s Nusra Front that is blacklisted by the U.S. as a terrorist group.
A policeman stood at the entrance of Al-Arid Street directing traffic. At noon, all shops, cafes and restaurants were open to business as normal, but there were no customers to be seen. Traffic in both directions was light. Workers were busy repairing damage to the building near Sebai Center, which was devastated by last week’s bombing. The blacked-out building, whose residents were forced to relocate, has already been nearly renovated, and its shattered balconies rebuilt.
Four helmeted men, in military fatigues and armed with rifles, stood guard outside a building believed to serve as Hezbollah’s political bureau where the party’s lawmakers hold their weekly meeting every Thursday. The entrance to the building was blocked with cement barricades.
In a sign of defiance, a huge portrait of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah that was hung near the targeted building on the day of the bombing was still there.
Al-Jawad Restaurant on Al-Arid Street, which was damaged by the Jan. 2 bombing, was open to business Tuesday.
“Our business is down 50 percent due to the worsening economic crisis and the unstable security situation,” said Mohammad Alloush, who works at the restaurant.
The main road of Haret Hreik was decorated with pictures of martyrs Ali Khadra and Ali Bashir, the two teenagers killed in the Jan. 2 and Jan. 21 explosions respectively.
Traffic was very light compared to the traffic jams for which Haret Hreik and other neighborhoods in the southern suburbs are notorious.
Residents in the predominantly-Shiite southern suburbs are haunted by security fears following four car bombings, including suicide attacks, that have rattled the area since July, killing nearly 40 people, in addition to a twin suicide explosion targeting the Iranian Embassy in Beirut that killed 30 people and wounded over 150. The attacks, claimed by Al-Qaeda-linked groups, were in response to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
In an ominous development that heightened residents’ fears for their security and lives, ISIS, the Nusra Front in Lebanon and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, all affiliated with Al-Qaeda, have vowed to continue their attacks against Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon in retaliation for their involvement in the war in Syria.
To forestall suicide attacks, the Higher Shiite Council has set up metal and cement barriers stretching more than 50 meters long outside its building, located on the airport road.
Also outside the council’s building, the Lebanese Army has set up a checkpoint to search vehicles entering Haret Hreik and check passengers’ IDs. Motorcycle riders are also thoroughly searched.
The security fears have prompted residents in the southern suburbs to change their daily patterns and take precautionary measures to guard against possible suicide attacks. Some families have left to their villages in the south, while others who can afford it have rented houses in west Beirut, residents said.
Worse still, the unstable security situation has led to a sharp drop in business, especially in restaurants and public service shops, as more people who live in Beirut are avoiding coming to the southern suburbs to shop and eat.
Some shop owners in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood, the target of a July 9 car bombing, have set up sand bags in front of their shops. Others plan to do the same in Haret Hreik.
“The specter of suicide attacks is haunting the people in view of the threats issued by Al-Qaeda-linked groups. The people are panicked,” said Amin Najdah, the owner of a money change shop in Haret Hreik.
He said his business had dropped by 60 percent since the area was rocked by car bombings. “People are afraid of coming to the southern suburbs,” Najdah said.
Despite the security threats posed by militant groups, he stood firm in his support for Hezbollah. “Security agencies should coordinate their efforts to apprehend and execute takfiri elements,” he said.
Mousa Raad, the owner of a spice shop in Haret Hreik, said his business had fallen by 40 percent since the Syria-related violence spread to the southern suburbs. He said he was thinking of protecting his shop with sand bags.
“People are staying indoors, fearing for their safety. They venture out only when necessary,” Raad said.
Workers at a car garage located a few meters from the Hassanein Mosque in Haret Hreik declared that business was down by 70 percent as a result of the unstable security situation.
“The alarming security situation is keeping customers away from the southern suburbs,” said Sami Haddad, who works at the garage.
“Look at these few cars driving on the street compared to the congested traffic a few weeks ago,” another employee said, declining to be identified. He added that people seemed afraid to come to the area.
At a popular restaurant in Haret Hreik, an employee said that while the number of their clients had dropped in the past few weeks, delivery orders had greatly increased.
“People are staying at home for security reasons, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” the worker said, in reference to the days when car bombings happened.
Nearby sweet shop Cremino, located on the airport road, reported a significant drop in their sales since the bombings began.
“Our sales have dropped by more than 50 percent due to security concerns,” said Mohammad Daher, an employee at Cremino.
Perhaps the most dismal outlook was offered by a bakery owner in Haret Hreik.
“The situation is very bad. The absence of customers has left me with a daily loss of LL500,000,” he said.